Innovative and disruptive

This Issue This is a part of the Tech matters feature

By - , Build 175

To achieve true disruption in the New Zealand construction industry, we must radically rethink how it functions and establish connectedness between its disparate parts.

‘THE WAY we work as architects is deficient, and soon, perhaps, it will be defunct, replaced by something new, something that reflects more closely our ambitions, our best values, and the possibilities and the responsibilities of the restless time in which we live.’ So wrote Chris Sharples from SHoP Architects in New York in the book Mass Customization and Design Democratization.

What is disruption, really?

There is a lot of writing and discussion about disruption in the construction industry and how technology and innovation can lead the way. In Build 174 (pages 70–80), there was even a feature section on Modern construction methods where the words disruption and innovation were used throughout.

But what does all of that mean? It is great to see businesses advancing current construction methods in New Zealand, but does the fact that some businesses are trying some things just a little bit different make them disruptive? I would argue not.

The essence of disruption is radical change, and that is what is necessary in an industry that seems to avoid change – a radical shift. Online streaming, ride sharing, room sharing and soon to be autonomous cars are examples of disruptive technologies. An example of this scale is required in the building industry.

The obvious question to ask is, ‘Are there technologies or businesses that are creating a disruption in the construction sector?’ I would argue that a better question might be, ‘Is the industry capable of creating a disruption in its current structure?’ Probably not.

What and who is the industry?

First, it is difficult to define what the industry is or what it includes. Between architects and designers, engineers, material manufacturers, prefabrication, on-site builders and building consent authorities to name a few, there is a vast spectrum of people and processes that fall under the umbrella of the industry.

Each of these disparate groups have a tendency to focus on what they do best and may even innovate within their field, but because the construction industry is actually an interconnected chain of all of these fields, innovation in the industry is quite rare. Therefore, disruption may be nearly impossible.

Rethink needed for radical change

It is going to take a rethinking of the industry in order to facilitate disruption – an identification of the chain of processes and events that contribute to the industry and how they are interconnected and affect one another. Continuing in isolation is only going to create more of the same but slightly different.

With current modes of operating, we are moving from trend to trend – such as the recent cross-laminated timber (CLT) trend. We are not questioning the value of the trend nor how it fits into a more holistic picture with values of what is important to us culturally, socially, economically, sustainably or even politically.

Connect technologies to create disruption

The technologies and mindset to cause the required disruption already exist. Nothing has to be invented. All it takes is to examine the individual advancements in each disparate field to see that there is innovation and use of technology.

There is just an inability to connect those technologies for the betterment of the industry to create disruption. Building information modelling (BIM) technology has advanced to incredible levels, and if you look past the generic BIM tools currently in use towards true BIM technologies, the advancement is beyond most users’ comprehension.

The same can be said of computer numerical control technologies that cover everything from the automation of traditional building techniques to robotics to 3D printing. Even Code compliance can be reimagined with current software tools and applications if there is a desire to research and develop the interconnectedness of all the industry does.

Finally, design – that privileged term held precious to architects – can even be automated and produced, often at times better, computationally.

Where to begin?

These are bold statements. But we are living in times where boldness and courage is needed to encourage change. How do we begin to do that?

I am borrowing heavily from Randy Deutsch’s article 8 Mindsets and Skillsets to Cultivate for the Future of Design to outline how to change the mindset of the industry. It was aimed at architects, but I have adjusted it to be relevant to all sectors.

Be vigilant, not fearful

Technology is not going to replace the workforce, but it can help relieve us of the menial day-to-day tasks that we hold dear as being the foundation of our professions.

Do not be afraid of technology that will give you more time to focus on more important things. I am referring to artificial intelligence that can adapt to workflows.

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Design processes and algorithms

Very soon, every business, if they are in all parts of the industry, if they want to survive, will need to design the software for their work and stop depending on someone else to do it.

Everyone will become a tech firm that designs the processes and algorithms to advance and expand their work.

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Redefine optimisation

Redefining optimisation is vital. Everyone thinks that optimisation is purely reduction. Optimisation needs to be considered in its entirety and as a tool for enhancing how we work.

Technology is ideal for the mundane and analysing data but fails miserably with bigger issues.

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Identify opportunities for automation

Automation is a tool, not a goal. Identify what can benefit from automation so that it can turn a repetitious, inefficient process into something that can be completed quickly.

Automation is not just a reference to manufacturing – aspects of Code compliance and design can be automated.

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Collaborate with technology

While this seems obvious, it needs to be explicitly stated. Technology changes rapidly, and only those that can and do collaborate with it will be able to remain relevant.

This does not mean using the latest version of something but being open to how technology changes around you.

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Think like machines

Our knowledge base is expanding from the way we are teaching machines to think. By teaching them to think, we are teaching ourselves how to think differently or like others. We are learning to communicate more effectively and empathetically – something we can all benefit from.

New Zealand well placed to incubate change

New Zealand is the ideal incubator for any type of disruption. As a small, well developed nation, the potential to create true disruption is extraordinary. Nowhere else is there immediate access to designers, manufacturers, government agencies and politicians.

We should be leveraging our size, our advanced businesses and our intelligence to redefine the industry on our terms rather than constantly looking to others. By leading through critical reflection and resilience, New Zealand could and should be world leaders of advancements in the construction industry.

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